‘DSP is sounding the alarms’: Staff shortages overwhelm employees, leave students behind

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Meghnath Dey /Staff
Despite the fact that campus's Disabled Students' Program provides essential accommodations for students with disabilities, the program is facing staffing shortages in the midst of national labor market disruptions resulting from the pandemic, unanticipated employee departures and some specialists on extended leave.

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To an outsider, it’s nothing more than a maroon building they pass on their way to grab a coffee at the Golden Bear Cafe. But for those who must venture inside, it’s an institution providing necessary social services that is rife with problems.

UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, provides essential accommodations for students with disabilities, leveling the playing field for all students. DSP specialists work most intimately with students who apply for disability services by conducting intake appointments, helping to establish accommodations and resolving concerns, according to DSP executive director Karen Nielson.

Amid national labor market disruptions resulting from the pandemic, unanticipated employee departures and some specialists on extended leave, DSP is experiencing a shortage of specialist staff, Nielson added.

But some see this as a symptom of a larger systemic problem, with DSP being sheltered and protected over the years as students fall through the cracks.

“Our services are severely underfunded. I am not discrediting the fact that they are suffering financially, but (campus) needs to be creative and think of solutions to fund our program,” said Carlos Vázquez, co-chair of the ASUC Disabled Students Commission, or DSC. “They cannot be minding their own business like disparities don’t exist. They do, and it’s (their) responsibility to help us.”

DSP through numbers 

Teetering on the brink of an emergency, DSP has been in a state of triage throughout the fall semester while trying to hire more staff.

In November, DSP had six specialists serving more than 4,000 students, with each specialist assisting about 600 students. While there is no limit to the number of students each specialist works with, DSP aims to provide each specialist with a caseload of 400 or fewer students, according to Nielson.

From 2010 to today, DSP faculty has grown from 30 to 41 employees while the number of students it serves has almost quintupled, according to a 2020-21 Impact Report from the campus Division of Equity and Inclusion.

To assist with the increased workload, four specialists will join DSP by early spring, according to Nielson.

One specialist was originally scheduled to join Dec. 1 but is now slated to start Jan. 11 as the hiring and onboarding process is taking longer than anticipated. Three additional “highly qualified candidates” will receive job offers this week, Nielson added.

Delays in hiring processes across the country are echoing through campus chambers. During a town hall meeting hosted by DSC on Nov. 15, DSP associate director Martha Velasquez revealed that campus’s human resources division has vacancies it has not filled while hiring practices have been delayed by months, obstructing the DSP hiring pipeline.

“We’re in a situation that’s a crisis,” said Ella Callow, UC Berkeley’s chief Americans with Disabilities Act Section 504 compliance officer and director of the Disability Access and Compliance office, during the town hall.

Slowed hiring has been compounded by a high turnover rate among specialists. Velasquez noted that DSP has offered open positions to current staff, but to no avail, as employees have either declined or left to other colleges.

Every specialist is scheduled to conduct no more than two new intakes per day, so they have time to meet with the ongoing students they serve and faculty to resolve accommodation issues, according to Nielson.

However, as DSP and other institutions across the country continue churning through employees and crumbling under the weight of a labor market shortage, lead disability specialist and supervisor Stephanie Flores has been conducting two to three intakes every day.

Nielson and other DSP supervisors have also been conducting intake appointments in addition to their normal responsibilities to assuage the workload.

While staff shortages in DSP come on the heels of economic ebb and flow from the prevailing pandemic, Berkeley Disabled Students founder Lisa Albertson said she has witnessed specialist retention and funding problems over the last decade.

This speaks to a bigger structural issue, said Quin Hussey, assistant dean for students in campus’s School of Public Health, during the town hall. She speculated that people are not filling open DSP positions because the pay is too low.

“How do we get in front of the chancellor? How do we tell her? What the hell, this is not right,” Hussey said during the town hall. “You pay a lot of money to be here, and you are consumers and stakeholders in this. … I am happy to fight from whatever little corner of the universe I sit in to make sure we can get these issues elevated.”

Overwhelmed specialists: Voices from the past echo the present 

Staff shortages and budget concerns presented unceasing challenges for some former specialists, leaving current specialists to relive stories from the past.

“It always felt short-staffed,” said a former specialist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Working at DSP from 2005 to 2015, she said she felt as though she would hold her breath at the beginning of each day and wouldn’t exhale until the day was over.

It was a very busy place, and student empathy was not UC Berkeley’s strongest area, the former specialist said.

“It was really intense,” she said. “During my drop-in times, sometimes the whole lobby would be full with students. I remember watching my emails. I’d be looking at my emails, and as I’d write one, I’d get more.”

On a normal day, the former specialist would conduct one to two intakes with an overall caseload of 400 students. She noted it was difficult to build a collaborative atmosphere and there was a never-ending push and pull between DSP departments. Students and staff, she said, did not feel like a team.

When it came time to hire a new DSP director, the former specialist alleged there was a lot of resistance against specialists being involved in the hiring process. The atmosphere quickly changed, she said, as DSP leadership was less supportive of student and staff accommodations and support services.

“There were times where you felt like you were fighting for students’ accommodations,” the former specialist said. “I felt like my accommodations were scrutinized.”

At that point, she said it was time to move on.

Especially in the mental health realm, the needs are always greater than what specialists feel they can meet, said Hahva Gallagher, who worked as a DSP specialist from 2012 to 2014.

Gallagher had a caseload of about 300 students and conducted one to two intakes each day at the beginning of the school year, which dwindled over the semester. While the volume of work was high, it was also manageable, she said.

However, during peak exam times when stress and anxiety filled the air and winnowed through campus, there were student requests she could not get to in time. She noted students in dire situations could go to another specialist.

She recalled being inundated with work sometimes, but mainly because there were not enough resources for students.

“I was there to be a resource to them,” Gallagher said.

With an annual regular pay of almost $48,000 in 2013, according to UC employee pay data, Gallagher said her pay did not reflect the importance of her work. She would not have been able to stay long on that salary, which she said could explain the high turnover rate.

Almost a decade later, DSP specialists have been unable to escape the clutches of budgetary constraints and understaffing experienced by their predecessors. While the average annual regular pay for current specialists in 2020 was about $77,000, according to the employee pay data, Flores said the workload has grown “tremendously.”

“We are meeting with students back to back throughout the day to make sure that no student is left behind,” Flores said. “I will speak for the Specialist team as a whole right now and say that the team is overwhelmed. The number of students we serve is growing and the caseloads are high.”

Flores added that DSP is looking into the high turnover rate and asking specialists what they need to prevent burnout.

As student populations continue climbing, Flores said more funding will be needed to hire additional staff. Without more money, history will repeat itself and today’s struggles will be a problem for tomorrow’s staff and students.

UC Berkeley funds most DSP services and positions, and the program’s annual budget is $3 million as of press time, according to Nielson.

“You may not be feeling it, but there are millions of dollars that we have pulled out of this administration since the beginning to get these things in place,” Callow said at the town hall addressing students with disabilities. “We will continue to do that.”

Since last year, campus experienced “extraordinary budgetary challenges” preventing DSP from being granted all of its initial funding requests, according to Nielson. To meet the needs of its students and hire additional staff, campus recently allocated emergency funding to DSP, though Nielson did not disclose the amount.

During her time, the former specialist said budgetary issues were a constant. Now, students are feeling the rippling effects of a short staff.

“We are struggling as our accommodations are being delayed. It’s really heartbreaking,” Vazquez said. “DSP is sounding the alarms that we need help.”

Students left adrift

Understaffing and underfunding have left students with disabilities in a state perched somewhere between unease and trepidation over their education.

It’s put a wrinkle in nearly every facet of their lives as students, with hundreds of people still waiting for intake appointments despite being immersed in finals season, according to Rosa Enriquez, a graduate student in campus’s School of Social Welfare program registered in DSP.

While the campus impact report claimed “DSP provided timely accommodations and services” over the 2020-21 school year, students who requested intakes in October have not been scheduled until the end of January, Enriquez alleged.

“There needs to be more transparency,” Enriquez said. “The bureaucracy of Cal: It just freezes you. Everything takes so much time and people are suffering … while (campus) needs to go through every channel, rather than caring about the health and well-being of its students.”

Nielson denied the allegation, noting that students who requested intakes in November were being seen in early December. Students who submitted requests in late November and have not received appointments are being scheduled for January intakes.

A little more than five years ago when Gallagher worked at DSP, students would complete their intakes in a timely manner and receive their accommodations immediately, she said. The former specialist added that waiting three weeks for an intake appointment was considered long.

Students unable to complete their intakes this semester are left with no accommodations, which could prolong their education as they may fail classes and go on academic probation, Albertson said.

For some, it may exacerbate their disability and financial resources, she added.

“This is nobody’s desire to have students struggling to try and get what they have a right to,” Callow said. “The state has chosen to generalize in austerity politics and funding of the university but as usual, disabled people are the canaries in the coal mine.”

DSP’s reach extends beyond students with disabilities, said Khodamorad Moradpour, co-chair and historian of DSC. Students who have lost loved ones, for example, may be eligible for accommodations, which is especially salient during the pandemic as people’s needs can change in an instant.

Incoming students are also being affected as the myriad of problems in DSP are deterring freshmen from pursuing their rightful accommodations, Moradpour alleged.

After several meetings with campus administrators, Moradpour alleged UC Berkeley is providing the bare minimum for students with disabilities in order to not get sued. He said he felt like campus was deflecting the issue by passing him around to different offices upon bringing up the staff shortage.

UC Berkeley provides an array of services to students with disabilities that go beyond the stipulations of legal compliance, which includes a career counselor and autism specialist, according to Nielson.

Nonetheless, the systemic problems ultimately linger, Albertson said, because DSP is “out of sight, out of mind.”

“We are tired of being ignored,” Vazquez said. “We are going to fight for the rights of our community, and (campus) will have to hear from us so long as that is not a reality.”

Contact Maxine Mouly at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @moulymaxine.